Laughing at Academia

The best book I've read all summer is The Origins of Virtue by Matt Ridley. The book is about cooperation in animals, primitive societies, our society...and why it exists at all. I'm reading it for the official reason that I'd like to understand better whether there's anything very much like morality in animals.

Ridley gives the reader a glimpse of disputes in anthropology, economics, and many other fields. He's generally a very entertaining and witty writer (besides being a clear, elegant, and colorful writer--he's my new writing hero). One sentence in the book really made me laugh. Ridley is explaining a certain raging debate between two schools of thought about why it is that, in hunter-gatherer societies, hunters share meat. Ridley says, of this debate--
Like all disagreements in academia, it raged so fiercely at its height...because the stakes were so small--there was only the subtlest of differences between the positions of the two schools.
I often wondered, while sitting in seminar rooms in graduate school: why are people so ferocious during discussions of arcane matters in the philosophy of mind or language or metaphysics? Actually, there's a wide range of quirky and comical things that can be observed in a seminar room. Not only inexplicable rage, but pretentiousness, artificiality, self-importance.

I used to think I'd like to try writing fiction--maybe a comic novel set on the stage of of a philosophy department? It sounds hopeless, but it's already been done, and very well--there's The Mind-Body Problem by Rebecca Goldstein, with (as I recall) the Princeton philosophy department as the stage. Zadie Smith does a great job of capturing the comedy of academia in On Beauty.

A friend married to an academic told me she took offense at On Beauty's cast of ludicrous academic characters, but Zadie Smith is an excellent observer of academic foibles. People have written funny books about the ways of lawyers, lifeguards, mothers, rabbis. Why exempt professors?

As for Ridley's explanation--that academics gnash their teeth because so little is at stake. Hmm. That seems like the puzzle, not the explanation. Why gnash your teeth if very little's at stake? Surely it's a matter of egos in the balance, prestige on the line, the pressure to show you're the clever one, not your opponent. The competition for dominance. Cooperative talk isn't dazzling. So why engage in it?

But maybe Ridley has a point--if people didn't shout and scream, others might think it didn't matter much who's right. Sometimes, when all the dust settles, it really doesn't.

August 5
Now that I've finished Ridley's book I have to add: while it's all to the good that he pokes fun at various types of sentimental nonsense, Ridley isn't immune to sentimental nonsense himself. I love the irreverence about academia, as I said above. There's a great chapter in the book deriding the idea that native peoples are great respecters of nature and animals (he's got some great examples that suggest otherwise). Ridley rains on a lot of sentimental parades, and good for him. But when you get to the end of the book, you find him getting dewy-eyed about all the voluntary mutual support there'd be between citizens, if it weren't for the heavy hand of government. Get rid of the National Health Service in the UK, and everybody would be helping everybody else. Maybe some. But we see what life is like without national heathcare here in the US. It's nothing to get dewy-eyed about.


potentilla said...

It is quite often the case that books which are excellent summaries of academic research in particular fields, go all peculiar in the last chapter when the author adds some or his or her own rather perfunctorily thought-through speculations. I must re-read TOoV. On the subject of the evolutionary background to morality, have you come across this book?

I could probably also track down some refs on the topic of morality in animals. Frans de Waal is quite good in general.

Jean Kazez said...

I will look at that book. Ridley is very good, largely because it's full of fascinating examples. When you get to the end it's a little hard to get a grip on exactly what he said...leaving you hungry for more on the subject.

Anonymous said...

What about your colleague KBJ's views on national health care? He says: you take care of yourself, and he will take care of himself. And he asks: Why is your health his business, unless he voluntarily chooses it to be?

Jean Kazez said...

Well, these things are extremely complicated and no doubt KBJ has his arguments.

I will just say this--Michael Moore's movie Sicko argues very well that if you simply want to take care of yourself, you'd better not rely on private insurance.

And as for caring about others, I was intrigued by Moore's claim that all across the political spectrum in Canada, the UK, and France,national health care is accepted, just like in the US everyone accepts public schools.

Anonymous said...

When it comes to health care in Canada, KBJ says that "Canadians have to be the dumbest people on earth".

Also, for him the issue is not complicated. He says "My plan is simple: You take care of your health; I take care of mine. If you can’t afford health care for your children, don’t have children. If people are made to bear the costs of their decisions, they will make better decisions. If you take money from some people and give it to others, you destroy the incentive to make good decisions."

And then, in response to a critic of that statement, "Where does “society” get its money, Sam? On trees? I’m not responsible for other people. If you want to help them, have at it."

Quite simple, really. It's about freedom and responsibility.

I am surprised you would reference Michael Moore. Keith says, "It’s amazing to me that anyone would take Moore seriously, given his hypocrisy and his demonstrated indifference to truth."

Jean Kazez said...

It sounds like you've been reading too much Ayn Rand. Political philosophy really is a complicated business.

Anonymous said...

Tell it to Keith, not to me!

Anonymous said...

I'm not kidding there; that's a genuine request. Keith has mentioned you on his blog as a former fellow student. He thinks the matter is simple. If you could show him that it is not so simple, and that Michael Moore is not a hypocrite with a demonstrated indifference to truth, that would be quite something.

Today he continued on health care with: "I have a better idea, although it’s too sensical to be implemented by politicians. Let each person be responsible for his or her health. Nobody is responsible, financially or otherwise, for anyone else’s health, although people are free to subsidize other people’s health care if they wish"

And "I’m not responsible for your health. You are. You’re also responsible for your son’s health until he’s old enough to assume that responsibility. ... Why should I have to pay for other people’s lack of self-control? Where do you think the government gets its money, Brad? On trees? It takes it from people, without their consent."

Jean Kazez said...

Well, yes, a former fellow student, but that's all. We're not in cahoots.

I'm sure Keith is aware of all the political philosophy out there that challenges his libertarian thinking. He definitely doesn't need me to acquaint him with the counterarguments.

Nice try, but I'm not signing on for convincing KBJ of anything!

Anonymous said...

Oh, another thing, regarding your claims of "simplicity" v "complexity" , I see KBJ has addressed them today:

"Note from KBJ: I’m responsible for my health care. You’re responsible for yours. It’s really that simple."